By Harihar Swarup
In a feat of political compartmentalization with no domestic parallel, BJP has managed to sail through post-liberalisation India’s first recession year, the worst public health crisis since Independence, a protracted Chinese presence on the LAC and the largest farmer mobilisation in three decades. Despite the best attempts of BJP critics to connect these to governance failures, the party’s counter narrative was ready with simplistic responses.
From Atmanirbhar Bharat to blaming the Covid pandemic for fresh and legacy economic woes, crediting the tough short-notice nationwide lockdown for delaying the pandemic, and blaming the opposition for farm protests and Congress specifically for 1962, BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi haven’t just deflected criticism but sold a heady nationalist cocktail that projects strength.
This, no doubt, infuriates BJP’s political opponents and they blame the media no end. But this same lot can’t explain the opposition’s successes against BJP in states which it struggles to replicate in national politics. Nor can opposition backers explain how a handful of farm unions are staging a mass mobilisation that more well-heeled political parties couldn’t achieve even once in six years. The answer may lie in BJP successfully expending great political and governance capital to undermine opposition parties, especially Congress, as nationally viable entities while facing greater resistance to similar messaging at lower governance tiers.
Calls for organizational reform in Congress to meet the BJP challenge, needed as early as 2014 were finally articulated in 2020, but deference to an inefficient leadership endures. Congress fumbled through the year with an interim president battling ailments while BJP spared Union home minister Amit Shah from his double burden, electing JP Nadda as president in January. Congress’s nadirs driving BJP’s boundless optimism is not mere exaggeration: Take Madhya Pradesh, where Kamal Nath misjudged the extent of Jyotiraditya Scindia’s disillusionment and lost his government. The crafty Ashok Gehlot survived, provoking his out-of-depth rival Sachin Pilot into playing a weak hand prematurely.
Electorally, BJP will survey 2020 with satisfaction. It was blanked out of Delhi by AAP but that result was largely on expected lines, more so after clumsy polarization attempts that fooled no one. With Bihar, BJP may have peaked in the Hindi heartland. By edging out JD(U) as senior NDA partner, it is finally in pole position in the last north Indian state yet to get a BJP chief minister. Meanwhile, political space opened up in Bengal and Telangana courtesy weak opposition to autocratic incumbent CMs – Mamata Banerjee and K Chandrashekar Rao.
The rising political contestation is triggering their share of maximalist responses. The imbroglio over GST compensation, opposition ruled states revoking general consent to CBI probes, states passing legislation to dilute Centre’s farm reforms, and the targeting of BJP’s opponents by central agencies have strained federalism. The farm unions too have adopted the same strategy: their demand, some would term extreme, for repealing Centre’s laws and legal guarantee for MSP is evidently no negotiating tactic. Meanwhile, BJP chief ministers facing elections before 2024 are suddenly obsessing on issues with minimal developmental footprint like love jihad, religious conversion and cow protection, passing laws mutilating the Constitution’s liberal freedoms. They obviously calculate that framing the political discourse on polarizing issues will disorient opposition.
However, BJP isn’t yet a hegemonic force in the states and traction for such moves may hardly sustain: The Bihar election discourse was moored around unemployment and education. Obsession with Hindutva and undercutting the opposition risks neglecting fundamental livelihood issues that can suddenly burst forth like the current farm uprising. The farmers would have surprised the present government just as the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption movement rattled UPA-2 in 2011. Conventional political wisdom attributes the greatest nuisance value to established political parties. But with Congress and regional parties fighting existential battles, a complacent BJP misread seemingly amorphous Punjab protests since July just as it ignored opposition warnings in Parliament of potential unrest.
Ally Akali Dal, close to ground zero, had alerted BJP too. Rebuffed, the Badals managed to scurry out of NDA in September before sustaining more political damage. Maharashtra served BJP another cautionary example on managing allies. Shiv Sena appears at relative ease as equal partners with NCP and Congress despite the “secular” compulsions rather than play second fiddle to BJP. The 3-month-old three-party alliance has made progress in local elections, suggesting that BJP has hurt its own cause.
Despite impressive electoral gains in 2020 in Bihar, MP, Gujarat, Telangana, UP, Karnataka, Assam, Rajasthan and Manipur, the farm agitation would have soured the mood for BJP. It will recall last December’s Muslim mobilisation against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act spilling over into 2020 and culminating in the shameful northeast Delhi riots in February. Nevertheless, BJP exudes confidence in tackling a protracted crisis, trusting its ability to keep non-Punjab farmers out of mass agitations and isolating the current protesters. Electorally, BJP is on the offensive in upcoming polls to Bengal and Assam and has minimal stakes in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The real political challenges for the party are economic in nature. It must prevent farm protests from plunging into other rural grievances besides reviving the economy to ensure job creation, funding for welfare schemes hugely popular with the poor, and maintain India’s defensive edge against China.
Amid 2021’s daunting challenges and visible signs of socioeconomic distress, wish we in sharply polarised India could share Angela Merkel’s optimistic view of politics: “So, one has to try to find compromises with mutual respect, but also with a clear opinion. That’s politics – always looking to find a common way forward.” (IPA Service)
Image source: The Times of India